An energy bar.
Photo: Brian Finke

The first energy bars were created in the 1960s for astronauts and were later dubbed “space food sticks” for their easy-to-consume shape and function. Another iteration showed up (on Earth) in the ’80s marketed for long-distance athletes who needed something portable to keep them fueled. These days you don’t need to be on a mission to Mars or training for the Chicago marathon to be an avid energy-bar eater. Two-thirds of Americans consume them, according to the market research firm Mintel.

More on Healthy Snacks

Our hectic, on-the-go lifestyles are one reason for the bars’ popularity. “They’re a convenient, no-fuss way to satiate a craving or hunger,” says a Consumer Reports nutritionist, Ellen Klosz. Consumers say that they buy them as snacks, as an energy pick-me-up before or after exercise, or as a meal substitute if they're trying to lose weight.

The bars are often marketed to these specific needs, but the fact is that you see the same ingredients in many bars, albeit in somewhat different quantities. In fact, if you’re not careful, you could end up with a choice that isn’t all that different from a candy bar.

So which are the best energy bars for nutrition and taste? We analyzed 33 bars.

What’s in Them?

Our most important discovery: Many bars don’t live up to the healthy impression on the packaging. Just six out of the 33 tested bars earned a Very Good rating for nutrition. The best energy bars have few, if any, added sugars (such as cane sugar, honey, or brown-rice syrup) in the ingredients list. It should also have 150 to 200 calories, 3 grams of fiber, and 3 to 6 grams of protein. But you can’t just shop by the numbers; it matters which ingredients supply those nutrients.

In our ratings, Klosz says, bars with whole foods like nuts and dried fruit as their main sources of protein and fiber got higher nutrition scores than those with added protein from soy isolates, rice, or peas, or added fiber from chicory root or corn. “Adding these ingredients can make a bar seem healthy, but they are highly processed," she says. "It’s better to get your nutrients from whole-food ingredients, because they also supply a variety of vitamins, minerals, and other healthy compounds.” 

Protein is the nutrient most people pay attention to when choosing a bar, according to Mintel, probably because of marketing messages that leave many believing their diets are deficient in protein. But the majority of people don’t need to worry, Klosz says. “Most of us get an adequate amount in our regular diet, and with one exception [the two RxBars], the bars in our tests with more than 6 grams of protein almost always contained processed sources.”

Added sugars are another concern. Agave syrup, brown rice syrup, corn syrup, fructose, fruit juice concentrate, glucose syrup, honey, and tapioca syrup are among the sweeteners used in the bars we tested. “Though some of these may sound better for you than plain old sugar, they’re all added sugars and should be kept to a minimum in your diet,” Klosz says. “Better to choose a bar that has only fruit, or if it has added sugars, they’re toward the end of the ingredients list.”

How Do They Taste?

Another advantage of sticking with mostly whole-food ingredients: better taste. The bar that got our top taste score, Kind Plus Cranberry Almond + Antioxidants With Macadamia Nuts, had crunchy nuts, tart cranberries, and a sweet but not too sweet honey glaze. Alternatively, Quest Chocolate Peanut Butter Protein Bar, which got a Fair sensory rating, didn’t have much chocolate flavor and had a chalky, sticky mouthfeel.



Better Than Bars

Whole foods can be easy to pack, too. If you want a truly healthy alternative to an energy bar and are willing to put in a smidge more time and effort, here are five suggestions:

Breakfast
You want: A mix of protein and fiber so that you’re satisfied until lunch.
Try: Two hard-boiled eggs plus two Wasa multigrain crispbread crackers.

Midday Snack
You want: Something sweet with fiber and protein so that you avoid the vending machine.
Try: A half-cup of fiber cereal (like All-Bran or Shredded Wheat) mixed into a 6-ounce container of plain Greek yogurt with 1⁄3 cup blueberries or 1 tablespoon of dark chocolate chips.

Before Exercise
You want: Carbs for quick energy about an hour before exercise.
Try: Two or three medjool dates.

After Exercise
You want: Carbs to replenish energy stores and protein to help repair muscles.
Try: A small whole-wheat tortilla spread with 1 tablespoon of almond butter and half of a small banana, sliced, then rolled up as a wrap.

Mini Meal
You want: A serving of veggies and fruit, along with some “fill me up” protein.
Try: One-fourth cup hummus and carrot, celery, and bell pepper sticks. Keep refrigerated until you’re ready to eat. Serve with a small whole-wheat pita and an apple.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the October 2018 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.